When I was a Master's student (almost a decade ago), I started blogging. It was a messy endeavor: a Blogger site with some random posts that didn't amount to much. I worked more on the layout than the content. I didn't get many page views, and I felt no motivation to continue working on it.
Years later, here I am, with a Ph.D. and years of experience behind me, writing regularly for three different blogs--one of them a blog of my own. I haven't published a paper in an academic journal yet (for now, the standard currency for academic credibility), but I believe that my writing chops across genres have improved, my voice comes through my writing, and my awareness of audience is sharper. As a result, I am invested in my online presence as a blogger, and more broadly as a writer. Moreover, I believe that blogs can help writers, especially academic writers, become better communicators.
As an editor for two academic blogs, I thrive off of helping writers hone their ideas, but more importantly helping them get their voices online, as clearly as possible. My years of experience working as an editor and at a University writing center have taught me that writers need not just someone to clean up their prose (which is the more common interpretation of editor) but also someone who can find the idea they are trying to convey. In other words, they need someone who can help make those ideas crystal clear. For academic writers, this can be tough because of the supposed conventions of academic writing (even though most of the scholars I know prefer the kind of writing that is clear, concise, and striking). For better or for worse, we learn how to write in our disciplines mostly through example, and the examples we are presented with are most often found in traditional academic journals.
Academic blogging can coexist with these academic journals and help writers develop their ideas by taking them for a trial run with readers before committing them to a journal article. However, traditional academic writing, with its lengthy paragraphs, heavy footnotes, and discipline-specific jargon, may not translate well to blogging. Here are some suggestions (which solely reflect my experience as a blogger and as an editor for blogs):
- You don't have to have an airtight argument. We're taught to think in terms of arguments, of polished prose. But in blogging, you can explore a question, and not answer it. The conversation that arises in the comments section could help you get to an answer.
- Think about the length. Technically, a blog post can be as long as you want it to be, but be aware of when you drone on and on about a subject. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Consider whether a post is better off broken up into two posts--or several. Moreover, some blogs have word limits: here at U Venus we aim for the 750 word range; at Sounding Out! we tell writers to aim for 1500 words. Reading does not have to always be an endurance test--and length does not testify for the complexity of ideas.
- Consider language. If you feel comfortable writing in a casual tone, that's alright in a blog post, even if it is an academic topic. That adds to the voice of the piece. However, this also depends on the subject. Ultimately, don't feel like your posts needs to be serious or stuffy because it is an academic topic.
- Share your research interests. You don't have to give everything away if you don't want to. I know a lot of academics have a fear of being scooped, and their fears are not unfounded: it has happened. Publishing a blog post doesn't have to lead to that. In fact, it could be a teaser of something you're working on that could bring more readers to that finished product. It can also help you make your mark in your field. You don't have to upload your whole dissertation on a website--if you don't want to.
- Ask for feedback. Unsure about the subject? Unsure about the tone? Ask your editor. Editors are here to help you; some may not have the time to answer. But some may be able to give you more focused feedback. At both of the blogs I work for we give different kinds of feedback, but we make sure to give writers feedback to help them take their writing to the next level. If you're blogging at your own blog, ask your readers. Share the post with people you hope that give you feedback. Don't be afraid to ask.
- Last but not least, keep in mind the style of the genre. Headers are okay. Shorter, descriptive titles are allowed (they are preferable for tweeting and sharing). Not all of your sentences have to be long compound sentences. Bullet points work. Leave in the short paragraph; the long, 15-sentence paragraph may be more common in traditional academic publishing, but in blogging it is less so.
Ultimately, academic writers who are considering blogging about their research or about subjects they're interested in should think of blogging as a different genre in a different medium. They must not fear that blogging will replace academic publications. However, I want blogging to be considered in scholarly conversations; blogs allow our research and ideas to get to readers faster, and force us to think about a broader audience.
I will end this post with a challenge: next time you read a blog post you like or that's related to something you've been working on, consider writing a response. Better yet, see if you can send that response to that same blog. Be a part of the conversation.
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